Saturday, April 09, 2016

What I've learned from one month of answering on StackOverflow

Jon Skeet in a box Almost a month ago I got started being active on StackOverflow, a web site dedicated to answering computer related questions. It quickly got addictive, but the things that I found out there are many and subtle and I am happy with the experience.

The first thing you learn when you get into it is that you need to be fast. And I mean fast! Not your average typing-and-reading-and-going-back-to-fix-typos speed, but full on radioactive zombie attack typing. And without typos! If you don't, by the time you post your contribution the question would have been answered already. And that, in itself, is not bad, but when you have worked for minutes trying to get code working, looking good, being properly commented, taking care of all test cases, being effective, being efficient and you go there and you find someone else did the same thing, you feel cheated. And I know that my work is valid, too, and maybe even better than the answers already provided (otherwise I feel dumb), but to post it means I just reiterate what has been said before. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I can only upvote the answer I feel is the best and eventually comment on what I think is missing. Now I realize that whenever I do post the answer first there are a lot of people feeling the same way I just described. Sorry about that, guys and gals!

The second thing you learn immediately after is that you need to not make mistakes. If you do, there will be people pointing them out to you immediately, and you get to fix them, which is not bad in itself, however, when you write something carelessly and you get told off or, worse, downvoted, you feel stupid. I am not the smartest guy in the world, but feeling stupid I don't like. True, sometimes I kind of cheat and post the answer as fast as possible and I edit it in the time I know the question poster will come check it out but before poor schmucks like me wanted to give their own answers. Hey, those are the rules! I feel bad about it, but what can you do?

Sometimes you see things that are not quite right. While you were busy explaining to the guy what he was doing wrong, somebody comes and posts the solution in code and gets the points for the good answer. Technically, he answered the question; educationally, not so much. And there are lot of people out there that ask the most silly of questions and only want quick cut-and-pastable answers. I pity them, but it's their job, somewhere in a remote software development sweat shop where they don't really want to work, but where the money is in their country. Luckily, for each question there are enough answers to get one thinking in the right direction, if that is what they meant to do.

The things you get afterwards become more and more subtle, yet more powerful as well. For example it is short term rewarding to give the answer to the question well and fast and first and to get the points for being best. But then you think it over and you realize that a silly question like that has probably been posted before. And I get best answer, get my five minutes of feeling smart for giving someone the code to add two values together, then the question gets marked as a duplicate. I learned that it is more satisfying and helpful to look first for the question before providing an answer. And not only it is the right thing to do, but then I get out of my head and see how other people solved the problem and I learn things. All the time.

The overall software development learning is also small, but steady. Soon enough you get to remember similar questions and just quickly google and mark new ones as duplicates. You don't get points for that, and I think that is a problem with StackOverflow: they should encourage this behavior more. Yet my point was that remembering similar questions makes you an expert on that field, however simple and narrow. If you go to work and you see the same problem there, the answer just comes off naturally, enforced by the confidence it is not only a good answer, but the answer voted best and improved upon by an army of passionate people.

Sometimes you work a lot to solve a complex problem, one that has been marked with a bounty and would give you in one shot maybe 30 times more points than getting best answer on a regular question. The situation is also more demanding, you have to not only do the work, but research novel ways of doing it, see how others have done it, explaining why you do things all the way. And yet, you don't get the bounty. Either it was not the best answer, or the poster doesn't even bother to assign the bounty to someone - asshole move, BTW, or maybe it is not yet a complete answer or even the poster snubs you for giving the answer to his question, but not what he was actually looking for. This is where you get your adrenaline pumping, but also the biggest reward. And I am not talking points here anymore. You actually work because you chose to, in the direction that you chose, with no restrictions on method of research or implementation and, at the end, you get to show off your work in an arena of your true peers that not only fight you, but also help you, improve on your results, point out inconsistencies or mistakes. So you don't get the points. Who cares? Doing great work is working great for me!

There is more. You can actually contribute not by answering questions, but by reviewing other people's questions, answers, comments, editing their content (then getting that edit approved by other reviewers) and so on. The quality of my understanding increases not only technically, but I also learn to communicate better. I learn to say things in a more concise way, so that people understand it quicker and better. I edit the words of people with less understanding of English and not only improve my own skills there, but help them avoid getting labelled "people in a remote software development sweat shop" just because their spelling is awful and their name sounds like John Jack or some other made up name that tries to hide their true origins. Yes, there is a lot of racism to go around and you learn to detect it, too.

I've found some interesting things while doing reviews, mostly that when I can't give the best edit, I usually prefer to leave the content as is, then before I know the content is subpar I can't really say it's OK or not OK, so I skip a lot of things. I just hope that people more courageous than me are not messing things up more than I would have. I understood how important it is for many people to do incremental improvements on something in order for it to better reach a larger audience, how important is that biases of language, race, sex, education, religion or psychology be eroded to nothing in order for a question to get the deserved answer.

What else? You realize that being "top 0.58% this week" or "top 0.0008% of all time" doesn't mean a lot when most of the people on StackOverflow are questioners only, but you feel a little better. Funny thing, I've never asked a question there yet. Does it mean that I never did anything cutting edge or that given the choice between asking and working on it myself I always chose the latter?

Most importantly, I think, I've learned a few things about myself. I know myself pretty well (I mean, I've lived with the guy for 39 years!) but sometimes I need to find out how I react in certain situations. For example I am pretty sure that given the text of a question with a large bounty, I gave the most efficient, most to the point, most usable answer. I didn't get the points, instead they went to a guy that gave a one liner answer that only worked in a subset of the context of the original question, which happened to be the one the poster was looking for. I fumed, I roared, I raged against the dying of the light, but in the end I held on to the joy of having found the answer, the pleasure of learning a new way of solving the same situation and the rightness of working for a few hours in the company of like-minded people on an interesting and challenging question. I've learned that I hate when people downvote me with no explanation even more than downvoting me with a good reason, that even if I am not always paying attention to detail, I do care a lot when people point out I missed something. And I also learned that given the choice between working on writing a book and doing what I already do best, I prefer doing the comfortable thing. Yeah, I suck!

It all started with a Tweet that claimed the best method of learning anything is to help people on StackOverflow who ask questions in the field. So far I've stayed in my comfort zone: C#, ASP.NET, WPF, Javascript, some CSS, but maybe later on I will get into some stuff that I've always planned on trying or even go all in. Why learn something when you can learn everything?!


Lex Li said...

Welcome to SO :) I cannot agree more on the opinions and I would like to share one example. I unlocked all current privileges but only asked three questions there. (However, each of my questions being answered are really important to my projects).

Andrei Rinea said...

Glad to see you on StackO too! On thing I would like to add.

I've noticed that when I write with a more aggressive tone, my message gets mostly ignored regardless of its value and truth level. Therefore I will recommend a gentler way to handle people..

Siderite said...

Hard to imagine you using an aggressive tone :-))